How Do You Know?

“Did we do the right thing?” Telal asks

He has no real reason to visit me, other than to ask her that question. I haven’t seen him at all for the past week. I suspect he has been avoiding me. I certainly haven’t sought him out.

He has no reason to be awake this early, either, but neither do I, when it comes to that. The morning light has only just begun to suffuse the air.

“We did,” I reply, with considerably more confidence than I feel.
Today would be — is — the girl’s 10th birthday. I laid awake last night, anxious for what the day might bring. I don’t know for sure how the Dragon Laws divide the days. It’s not spelled out in any of my books. When the girl reached her tenth birthday, the Laws would no longer protect her, but when did the Laws consider the day as having officially begun?

When would the other villagers, if they remembered the significance of this day at all, come to take the girl to her fate?

If they remembered — and I feel sure that at least one of them will, though I have made every effort for the girl to be forgotten — then I will have more visitors today than just Telal or Fia, my apprentice. Or her customers.

“How do you know?” Telal asks from his seat at the table. I can’t bring myself to sit, but his knees bother him.

I’ve busied myself making a cream that will ease his knee pain. He didn’t ask me for it, but I need something to do. “I don’t, Telal, but I have to believe that I do.”

He wraps his hands around his tea. Before the light comes, the air is cool, and the warmth must feel good to him. “Do you think things will be better for her this way?

I pause in my mixing to look toward the window by which the girl used to sit, looking out at the town. Though of course, the limits of what she could see expanded far beyond what that window showed her. From the counter, I can’t see out of it, but I can picture her sitting in front of it.

“Yes,” I say. “I do.”

Telal does not answer. He stares into his tea, sighing.

“If anything happens here today, I would rather she not be around to experience it,” I say. “I know that I didn’t always treat her well. I know that I didn’t treat her like I would have treated my own daughter.” I turned to look at him, intending to meet his eyes, but he did not look up from his tea. “Still, it’s impossible to care for someone for ten years without coming to feel something for them.”

“It is,” Telal agreed.

I watch him for a moment, but I can see that he doesn’t want to keep talking, at least for the moment. I return to grinding up the dried herbs in my mortar. When I’ve ground them up enough, I’ll add them to the pot of boiling water I’ve prepared on the stove.

I’ve just added the herbs to the pot when a knock comes at the door. I sigh. I turn a level, raising the pot higher above the flame so that it will reduce to a simmer. The light is brighter now, though it hasn’t reached the full brilliance of day. Whenever the Dragon Laws end, I expect someone has determined that now is time to come for the girl.

I glance at Telal, because I think I know who will have come. His shoulders slump. He still does not meet my eyes, but he can see well enough when I turn to look at him expectantly.

“Alright,” he says.

He rises. I keep tending to my mixture, because if I let it simmer too long, it will not have the intended effect, but also because I don’t want to answer the door. I am glad that he has come so that he can do it for me.

He opens the door. I look to see who it is, and in doing so, I confirm my suspicions. Flanked by four other men stands a younger version of Telal, with his hair more full of color and his shoulders not yet pulled down by age.

“Vane,” Telal says. “I wish that I could say that I’m surprised to see you, son.”

“Father,” Vane says. Unlike his father, he does sound surprised. “Where is she?”

“Kana is at the stove,” Telal says, stepping to the side. I wave and make a show of stirring the mixture in the pot, though it does not need that yet.

“You know who I mean,” Vane says, scowling.

Telal sighs. “I do.”

“Well?” Vane says. The men on either side of him are tense. One of them holds a length of rope, looped over one arm. “We know Kana keeps her here.”

“How do you know that?” Telal says. “You’ve never come asking after her.”

“People talk,” Vane says. “This is a small town. Do you really think you could keep a secret in this place?”

“Who talks?” I ask, despite myself. “I kept her out of sight for years. If people knew she was here, they didn’t say anything, or mention that it bothered them.” I eyed him, one hand on my hip. “You yourself still come to me for relief when that rash comes back.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Vane says. “What matters is that we’ve come for her, Father. Kana. Today is her tenth birthday. We all know what that means.”

“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” Telal says. “Not unless you make something of it.”

“It’s the day the Laws cease protecting her,” Vane says. “Whether you like it or not, that means something.”

“Just because she’s no longer protected doesn’t mean it’s right to do her harm,” Telal says.

“Careful, now,” Vane says. The men behind him look uncomfortable. “You don’t want us to think you’re defending a dragon-born.”

“I am your father,” Telal says, drawing himself up to his full height. I see the lost outlines of his younger, sturdier frame, before age began to take its toll. “I will not have you making veiled threats at me.”

“Stand aside, then,” Vane says. “Let us enter and take the girl. Your part in this should have ended long ago, father. I don’t know why you’re even here.”

“Because this is still my town,” Telal says. “I should still have some say in what happens here.”

“You gave that up the day you passed me the title of Village Head,” Vane says.

“He did not,” I say, though another part of me instant rebukes me for not staying quiet. “Everyone in this village should have some say it what goes on here. You’re not the King, Vane. You’re just the Head.”

“Be that as it may,” Vane says through a tightened jaw, “I am not the only one here who wants me to do what I’ve come to do.” He gestures at the men behind him. “That should be clear enough to you.”

Telal tenses up. I don’t know if he has more to say, or if he’s fighting the urge to do something foolish. I put a stop to it either way. “Come in. You won’t find her here, anyway. This is all pointless.”

I turn back to the simmering pot. It’s time to add the whiteroot powder, which will make the mixture into a cream. With a small spoon, I scoop the power out of its jar and shake it over the bubbling water. It fizzes, the number of bubbles multiplying exponentially. This lets me pretend I’m unconcerned with Vane as he enters my home, waking right up to me with a dangerous sense of purpose.

“What did you say?” he demands.

“The girl is not here,” Telal says.

“Search the house if you like,” I say. I stir the cream at a steady pace. It has begun to thicken already.

Vane gestures to the men he brought with them. I know them all, of course. I know everyone in the village at least by sight and name, though I can’t say I know them all well. I know these men’s wives better than I know them, of course. Women are much more likely to come to me than men.

“Where is she?” Vane demands, scanning the room as if he will find her sitting there in plain sight, yet somehow previously unnoticed.

“Gone,” Telal says. “We sent her away.”

“But the Laws force you to protect her,” Vane says, shaking his head. “They stop you from harming her.” He looks at me, a twinge of disgust upon his face. “They forced you to keep her in your home, to feed her and bath her and protect her. They wouldn’t let you send her away. She was too young.”

“You’re right, in part,” I say. “The Laws won’t let you hurt a young dragon kindred, or let them die by your inaction. If we hadn’t taken action, she would have died today, by your hand.”

“Well, not by my hand…” Vane begins, but he trails off. He continues on, as though hoping I didn’t hear that first part. “You’re saying the Laws forced you to send her away?”

They didn’t. I don’t think they even work like that. But if believing that will make it easier for Vane to accept the fact that his father helped to save the girl, I’ll allow him to think so. “Basically, yes.”

“Where is she?” Vane asks again. “She’s only ten years old. She can’t have gotten far.”

“The dragon kindred age faster than our own children,” I say. “They’re born faster, and they learn and mature faster. She’s more like a child of fifteen or sixteen.”

“Still,” Vane says, exasperated. “You’ve kept her in this house her entire life. She knows nothing of the world. She’ll die out there.”

“Why are you suddenly concerned about her wellbeing?” I ask. “What do you care about her life? Didn’t you come here to take it, like you took those of her parents?”

Vane bites his cheek, a habit he’s had since he was a boy, when he wants to say something but knows that he shouldn’t. Good. My house is not large, and there is no real place to hide someone, if there are people determined to search. Vane’s men have already returned.

“She’s not here, son,” Telal says, with a softer voice than I would have imagined possible, given the tension I saw in him minutes ago. “She’s gone. She should be far from here by now.”

Still, Vane says nothing. His teeth are still clenched upon his cheek. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t bloody himself. His hands are grasped into shaking fists. He takes a deep breath. “If you’re going to keep leading the village behind my back, why did you even pass me the title?”

Telal shakes his head. “They follow you, son. Not me.”

Vane’s eyes dart between the others present: myself, and the four men he brought with him. “Why —” he begins, but his father cuts him of with an upraised hand.

“This isn’t the time or the place,” Telal says. “We can talk about this later. Alone. For now, can’t you just accept that you don’t have to do today what you thought you were going to have to do? The dragons are awful. They are evil, as are their designs for the world. We don’t disagree with you on that.”

Telal meets my way. “We may not have saved her. We don’t even know that for sure. What we do know — what I know, son — is that I’ve saved you from having to condemn a little girl to death.”

I expect Vane to reply to this somehow, probably in anger, but he doesn’t answer. Not directly. He leaves, his footsteps heavy. His men follow. I suppose, in a way, that this is answer enough. Telal collapses into a chair, his had falling into his hands.

“This is how I know we did the right thing,” I say, discovering the answer even as I say it. “Or at least, how I know we did the right thing for her. Whether it’s the right thing for the world is another story.”

I sit down next to Telal, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We knew that, if she stayed here, she would die today. We knew it beyond a doubt, whatever we told ourselves or however much we hoped that your son would forget about her. We don’t know where Garth is taking her. We know what he said, but we don’t know if that’s true. But even though we don’t know, that uncertainty at least gives us some hope. In going with him, there’s a possibility things will be better for her. Better than a death in front of the village she’s watched her entire life, at least.”

He shifts his head in his hands so that he can look at me, and I realize that he is crying. I’m not. I’m not sure enough in my feelings about the girl to feel that level of remorse. But then, I think, maybe he’s not crying for the girl, but for his son.

I rub his back with my hand, but then I leave him at the table. I have to finish making the cream for his knees, or my ingredients will go to waste.

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